All about Organic Certification

The movement towards organic agriculture began even as synthetic inputs were still finding its way into farms in many countries.  While chemical farming was becoming the order of the day, in some quiet corners of the world, as early as the 1940’s, emerged a trend that moved away from this growing reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  Although it took a while for this movement to find its way to different parts of the world, it became an alternative path to agriculture, one that relies on management of the ecosystem rather than the use of external agricultural inputs.  Instead, site-specific management practices are used, which help maintain and increase long-term soil fertility and prevent pests and diseases.

Factors that pushed for organic

There were three major driving forces that pushed for the shift towards organic.  The first was consumer or market-driven, where consumers take a conscious interest in how their food is produced, processed and marketed.  The consumer, therefore, has a strong influence over organic production.  The second push came from countries such as in the European Union (EU), where the Government provided subsidies for organic agriculture in order to generate environmental goods and services.  Its objective was to reduce groundwater pollution and to create a more biologically diverse landscape.  And finally came farmer-driven organic agriculture, wherein the farmer, having understood that conventional agriculture is unsustainable, developed alternative modes of production to improve their family health, farm economies and/or self-reliance.  In many developing countries, organic agriculture is adopted as a method to improve household food security and to reduce input costs.

What does ‘organic’ demand?

But organic is a great deal more than saying no to chemicals.  There are a set of other requirements that need to be fulfilled.  While these may differ from country to country, they usually involve a set of production standards for growing, storage, processing, and packaging.   These include

1. avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs and the use of sewage sludge

2.avoidance of genetically modified seed

3.use of farmland that has been free of chemical inputs for at least 3 years

4.maintaining strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products, and keeping detailed written production and sales records.  Also, there are certain types of pesticides, like bio-pesticides, that are permitted under organic farming.  It takes three years for a conventional farm to make the transition to organic.  And during this time, crops harvested are not considered as fully organic.

Certification is key

But for organic produce to be proved to the consumer as organic, it takes a little something more, and that is organic certification.  In many countries, the use of the term ‘organic’ has legal restrictions, and certification is overseen by the government.

In the interest of credibility and transparency, certification is almost always done by a third party.

To certify a farm, the farmer or the contract farming company is required to engage in a number of new activities in addition to the normal farming operations.  This includes a study of organic standards, assuring compliance with the standards, documenting farm history details and current set up (which include soil and water tests), preparing and executing an annual plan, being subject to inspection, carrying out regular record-keeping, and payment of a certification fee.

How organic certification supports the millennium development goals

Organic Certification has the potential to, directly and indirectly, contribute to the achievement of some of the Millenium Development Goals, just like just like fair-trade certification does.  With the growth of ethical consumerism in developed countries, imports of eco-friendly and socially certified produce from the poor and developing countries have increased; and this too contributes towards the achievement of the MDGs.

Some points of discussion around organic farming

One major debate on organic farming is whether it can produce enough food for everyone.  But as we continue to study issues of food security, we understand that food security is not just the ability to produce food; it’s also about everyone being able to access food.  While the global food production is enough to feed the global population, the problem is getting it to the people who need it.  This can have an important impact on local food security and resilience.  In rain-fed systems, there is evidence that organic agriculture has outperformed conventional agricultural systems under environmental stress conditions.  Under the right circumstances, the market returns from organic agriculture can potentially contribute to local food security by increasing family incomes.  Another debate that comes up is about why organic food is more expensive than conventional food.  The answer is that certified organic products are generally more expensive than conventional food.  This is because the organic food supply is limited as compared to demand. Production costs for organic foods are typically higher due to higher labor inputs per unit of output because of the greater diversity of enterprises. This means that economies of scale, that is a major factor in conventional agriculture, cannot be achieved here.

Certified Organic Products

So now we know that

certified organic products are those that have been produced, stored, processed, handled and marketed in accordance with precise technical specifications, and certified as “organic” by a certification body.

Once verified, the product has earned a label.  Although the label can vary depending on the certifying body, it can be taken as an assurance that the essential elements constituting an “organic” product throughout the journey from farm to market, have been met. It means that the product has been produced and processed in an ecologically sound manner.  The label is, therefore, a production process claim as opposed to a product quality claim.  The label carries the name of the certification body, through which we know the standards with which it complies.  An informed consumer will be able to use this as a guide.  Certification bodies evaluate operations according to different organic standards and can be formally recognized by more than one authoritative body.  Many of them operate worldwide, most of which are private firms and originate in developed countries.

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